The Samsung Galaxy Note 20 is reportedly going to ditch the time-of-flight (ToF) sensor from its rear camera array because of a lack of user interest and software improvements. It's a fair move to make, but one that could leave it open to attack from Apple's iPhone 12.
A report by the Korea Industry Post (opens in new tab) (via SamMobile (opens in new tab)) claimed that Samsung is considering the removal of this sensor from its next Galaxy Note phone. This is despite it being added with great fanfare to its flagships last year and considered for inclusion on cheaper handsets too.
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ToF sensors are one of several types of depth sensor - cameras that don't take pictures but help measure the distance between the phone and the objects you're shooting. This is useful for improving photo effect quality, notably bokeh-style portrait effects; it's also used for augmented reality apps. However, this is an expensive sensor with a function that can also be achieved via software.
The first Samsung phone to feature a ToF sensor was the Galaxy S10 Plus 5G in 2019. This was then followed by the Galaxy Note 10 Plus at the end of last year, and by the Galaxy S20 Plus and Galaxy S20 Ultra, launched this February.
The Note 10 Plus was launched with a 3D-modelling function, meant to show off the benefits of its ToF camera. However this feature was not widely used or well-executed, requiring several updates to make it work properly.
We're expecting Apple to add a LiDAR sensor to its iPhone 12 Pro models like it has just done with the 2020 iPad Pro. LiDAR is a similar technology to ToF, but is more advanced. It's able to read and react faster to the environment in front of it and helps make using AR apps a far smoother experience. Hopefully, we'll see an even better version on the iPhone 12, and more apps to use it with thanks to Apple's updated ARKit for developers.
The only other major manufacturer using ToF sensors on phones right now is Huawei on its Mate 30 Pro and P40 Pro devices. But since Huawei tech isn't sold in the US due to government restrictions, Samsung's decision may leave Apple as the only flagship phone maker focussing on ToF-aided AR and photo effects going into 2021.
This could be a bad move for Samsung's photo quality in certain circumstances, which is already behind that of the iPhone in general. However, losing the ToF sensor could decrease the manufacturing cost of the Note 20, giving it a potential price advantage over the new iPhone 12. Or it could free up resources to develop another feature that might be more popular.
The Galaxy Note 20 is likely coming in August this year, alongside the Galaxy Fold 2. Expected upgrades include a 120Hz refresh rate display, new S Pen functionality, a new exterior design similar to that of the Galaxy S20 series, and incremental improvements to battery life and performance.